- Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
- Genital warts affect both women and men, but women are more vulnerable to complications.
- Genital warts can be treated, but they can come back unless the underlying infection is also treated.
Genital warts are soft growths that appear on the genitals. Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). These skin growths can cause pain, discomfort, and itching. They are especially dangerous for women because some types of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix and vulva.
HPV is the most prevalent of all STIs. This makes men and women who are sexually active vulnerable to complications of HPV, such as genital warts. Protection and treatment are essential in preventing this infection.
What causes genital warts?
Most cases of genital warts are caused by HPV. And there are more than 70 types of HPV that specifically affect the genitals. The HPV virus is highly transmittable through skin-to-skin contact, which is why it is considered a STI.
In fact, HPV is so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most sexually active people get it at some point — the key difference is whether the virus leads to complications like genital warts.
Genital warts are caused by different strains of HPV that cause warts on your hands or other parts of the body that don’t include the genital. A wart can’t spread from someone’s hand to the genitals, and vice versa.
Genital warts are transmitted through sexual activity. You may not begin to develop warts for several weeks after infection.
The warts are not always visible to the human eye. They may be very small and the color of the skin or slightly darker. The top of the growths may resemble a cauliflower and may feel smooth or slightly bumpy to the touch. An infected person may have a cluster of warts, or just one wart.
Genital warts on males may appear on the following areas:
- Inside or around the anus
Genital warts in females may appear on the following area:
- Inside of the vagina or anus
- Outside of the vagina or anus
Genital warts may also appear on the lips, mouth, tongue, or throat of a person who has had oral sexual contact with an infected person.
Even if you cannot see genital warts, they may still cause symptoms, such as:
- Vaginal discharge
If genital warts spread or become enlarged, the condition can be uncomfortable or even painful.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination of any areas where you suspect warts may be occurring. Because warts can be deep inside the body for women, your physician may need to perform a pelvic examination. They may apply a mild acidic solution, which helps to make the warts more visible.
A doctor can also perform a Pap smear, which involves taking a swab of the area to obtain cells from your cervix. These can then be tested for the presence of HPV. Certain types of HPV may cause abnormal results on a Pap smear, which may indicate precancerous changes. If your doctor detects these abnormalities, you may need more frequent screenings to monitor any changes.
Your doctor will also ask questions about your health and sexual history. This includes symptoms you have experienced and any times you have engaged in unprotected sex, including oral sex.
If you are concerned you may have contracted a form of HPV known to cause cervical cancer, your physician can perform a DNA test. This determines what strain of HPV you have in your system.
While visible genital warts often go away with time, the virus cannot be eliminated once it is in your bloodstream. This means you may have several outbreaks over the course of your life. This makes managing symptoms important because you want to prevent transmitting the virus to others. Genital warts can be passed on to others even when there are no visible warts or other symptoms.
You may wish to treat genital warts to relieve painful symptoms or to minimize their appearance. You cannot treat genital warts with over-the-counter (OTC) wart removers or treatments.
Your doctor may prescribe topical wart treatments that might include:
- Imiquimod (Aldara)
- Podophyllin and podofilox (Condylox)
- Trichloroacetic acid (TCA)
If visible warts do not go away with time, you may require surgery to remove them. Your physician can remove the warts through:
- Electrocautery, or burning warts with electric currents
- Cryosurgery, or freezing warts
- Laser treatments
- Excision, or cutting off warts
- Interferon injections
Women who have been diagnosed with genital warts may need to have Pap smears every 3 to 6 months after their initial treatment to monitor any changes in the cervix. This is because certain types of HPV that cause genital warts are also associated with cervical cancer and precancerous changes in the cervix.